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‘Father of Transplantation’ Honed Skills at Northwestern

Thomas E. Starzl, MD/PhD ’52, ’82 H, performed the world’s first successful human liver transplant at the University of Colorado (CU) in 1967. A pioneer in organ transplantation, Dr. Starzl advanced the field from refining the surgical principles that made it possible to insert a new liver into a human patient to introducing the use of immunosuppressants to prevent organ rejection.

StarzlThomas_Hi res from UPMC_170While Dr. Starzl credited his mother, a nurse, with his initial interest in medicine, everything that led to his being known as the “Father of Transplantation” started at Northwestern University, he has said. During his years as a Markle Scholar in Medical Science and faculty member at the medical school (1959-61), he perfected in dogs the same liver transplant techniques he would later use on patients when an organ transplant was their only chance of survival. The path to discovery wasn’t easy, but Dr. Starzl would eventually refine two key surgical principals to achieving a successful liver transplant: the venovenous bypass and core cooling of the donor liver in Ringer’s solution. Venovenous bypass protects the venous beds of the intestine, kidneys and hindquarters from clotting or rupturing during placement of the new liver. Core cooling prevents the donor tissue from deterioration.

After graduating from Northwestern, this Iowa native completed a surgical internship at Johns Hopkins University. Surgical residencies followed at the University of Miami and the former VA Research Hospital in Chicago. Briefly serving on Northwestern’s faculty, he left for CU in 1962. While moving up the ranks from associate professor of surgery to full professor to chair of surgery there, Dr. Starzl and his team began overcoming some of the great challenges of the day in transplantation. First, he worked out the difficulties of immune intolerance in the transplantation of allogeneic (non-identical) human kidneys, performing one of the largest series of such transplants in 1962 and 1963. He then focused on the liver, performing the first human transplant in 1963. After a several discouraging liver transplants resulting in the death of the first four patients, he and his team performed the first successful liver transplant four years later. The patient survived for more than a year.

In 1981, Dr. Starzl joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. For a decade, he served as chief of transplantation at what would become the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), leading one of the largest and busiest transplant programs in the world. On Valentine’s Day 1984, he performed the world’s first heart-liver transplant on a six-year-old girl. He also directed the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute, which in 1996, would be renamed in his honor. Currently on the faculty as Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery, Dr. Starzl remains an active investigator in the areas of transplant tolerance and chimerism — the coexistence of donor and recipient cells.

A young Tom Starzl leans out of an EEG machine used to record neurological messages of the brain stem.  As a medical student, Starzl spent two summer studying neurophysiology in Dr. H.W. Magoun's lab. (Image from 1986 Ward Rounds profile.)

A young Tom Starzl leans out of an EEG machine used to record neurological messages of the brain stem. As a medical student, Starzl spent two summer studying neurophysiology in Dr. H.W. Magoun’s lab. (Image from 1986 Ward Rounds profile.)

Dr. Starzl shared in a 1986 Ward Rounds profile article that he had no plan for where his career would lead him. “If I wanted to climb the administrative ladder, I would have never done those livers, or for that matter, those kidneys,” he said. “I would not have persisted in the face of those first discouraging results.”

But persist he did — providing hope where there was none and pioneering what was once a new field of medicine.